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Lake Ogallala State Recreation Area, Nebraska

It’s easy to say that Nebraska and Iowa are just big cornfields, boring to drive, nothing to see. If you are in a hurry and rushing down I-80 at the posted speed limit of 75, that could seem true. The GPS shows nothing but a single red stripe pointing straight ahead, hour after hour. The same cornfield seems to appear after every small rise. In the backseat, the kids are fidgeting, in the passenger seat the spouse is re-reading the road atlas in hope of finding a short cut to something interesting.

But in truth, this area is loaded with fascinating western stories. From mid-state to the western border with Colorado, I-80 follows the Mormon Trail, the Oregon Trail, and other pioneer routes to the west. It is also a bastion of railroad history: stories of the Union Pacific are predominant, with numerous museums and exhibits honoring this famous railway strewn along the long straight highway.

Just north of our route was the Sandy Hills region, which I would have liked to explore. Early settlers noted the sparse prairie and sandy soil, and moved on. They wanted cropland. But later settlers realized it was prime country for raising beef cattle, with grasses everywhere and plentiful water on the surface and below ground. Sandy Hills is now the center of Nebraska’s famed beef production, and a (reputedly) a scenic area in its own right.

As we drove west, the sky was mostly overcast, which made for dull windshield time. But in the last hours of our drive, the sky broke up and the setting sun began to create incredible landscapes of light. Black cattle became startling contrasts to illuminated corn and prairie. Golden aspens flecked the grassy plains, and the little hillocks everywhere started to take on richer dimensions than they had just a few minutes before. For the first time, we started to see that we are now in the West.

We turned off the interstate to head to Lake Ogallala State Recreation Area (SRA), and Lake McConaughy SRA in western Nebraska. This pair of lakes was formed by a long dam, which we are now parked directly below. The sun was setting as we arrived, so our view was limited but still fantastic. You drive over the dam, with a reservoir of water less than 100 feet below to the left, and to the right a sheer drop of perhaps 300 feet.

I could only imagine the sight our Airstream made as it glided along this strip atop the dam, all the clearance lights glowing, reflections of the dramatic blue-orange twilight sky along its sides. This is “big sky” country. It’s beautiful.


I would like to stay here for a couple of days to take photos. Ten feet behind our site is a small lake below the dam. Across the fence from the campground is a yellow field with black cattle roaming. The huge stone dam looms over us less than a half-mile away, and there are tall mature trees overhead. Best of all, there’s hardly anyone here, so it’s quiet and peaceful.


But practical issues intrude: one cell phone works, the other is “roaming.” The Internet in Motion box is roaming too, so we can’t get online. And unfortunately I do need to do quite a bit of work. So we must move on. I’ll post this from the road later this morning, as we drive the final leg to Denver.

But it is still dark out as I write this. We have crossed into Mountain Time and we all woke up early. We have a few hours to enjoy the sunrise and walk around with the camera. Before we go, I’ll to capture a few good pictures for you. I want you to get a sense of the inspiration the western landscapes give me.


I have been to lake McConaughy many many times, i lived there for 7 years, i loved it. Its a great vacation spot, i have so many awesome memories there. I go back every summer. sadly the lake has gone down alot and it isent what it use to be. Someday i hope it gets back to what it was before. i now live just north of Denver and love it here. But lake McConaughy will always be my home

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